LeadingAge, the national organization that represents nearly 6000 nonprofit elder care providers around the country, went through a strategic planning process a couple of years ago. Privileged to be a member of the national board during that process, I was deeply involved as we looked closely at not only the present but also the future. One key element that was a part of that process was the development of new mission and vision statements for the organization. The mission statement is a simple one “The trusted voice for aging,” although its intent and message are far from simple. This few words encompass a great deal about advocacy, about representing the needs of older adults and about broadening our responsibilities as an organization, and as providers, far beyond the services we offer and the communities we run.
But it is the vision statement that I find even more powerful and, in many ways, complex. LeadingAge’s vision is “An America Freed from Ageism.” That’s a bold statement, a far-reaching statement and one that touches both those of us who are service providers but, even more so, our society as a whole. Ageism is, some would say, one of the lingering “isms” that we have yet to address. It’s not just about older adults, it’s discrimination against anyone based on age—too young as well as too old.
I spoke this week at a conference on a variety of topics that impact older adults, topics that we don’t often talk about but need to bring into the light. Ageism was one of them. Ageism is insidious, it is ingrained and it will be difficult to extinguish yet extinguish it we must.
Ageism carries with it the belief that anyone over a certain age is “less than.” We see this every day and I am certain you have all seen it as well. It is the assumption that anyone over 85 must have cognitive impairment and can’t understand. It’s the belief that we have to raise our voices and speak loudly and slowly to someone who looks older without having any idea of whether or not they have a hearing loss. It’s talking over the heads of those in wheelchairs or walking by them as if they don’t exist. It’s focusing on a culture of “young” without remembering that elders still have the opportunity to learn and grow and contribute.
Ageism sneaks into our language and further diminishes the elder. It is a hot button issue for me within the walls of our own organization. Adults do not wear “diapers.” They wear briefs or disposable undergarments. Adults don’t wear “bibs.” They wear clothing protectors and only if they choose to do so. When we call an elder a term that “sweetie” or “mama” or anything other than the name they choose to be called, we diminish them and we demean them. When we say that someone must have been “beautiful” or “really something” when they were young, we are saying that they are not still important or relevant or meaningful. These words are not meaningless expressions. They are tools that can build up or break down, that can reinforce age and respect or infantilize.
How will we free America from ageism? First, we need to free ourselves from the trappings of the language we use, of the generalizations we succumb to, of the inaccurate and inappropriate belief system that equates increasing age with diminishing value. Opening our own eyes enables us to open the eyes of others.